Public Release: 

Suicidal thoughts rapidly reduced with ketamine, finds study

Columbia University Medical Center

New York, NY (Dec. 14, 2017) - Ketamine was significantly more effective than a commonly used sedative in reducing suicidal thoughts in depressed patients, according to researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC). They also found that ketamine's anti-suicidal effects occurred within hours after its administration.

The findings were published online last week in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates in the U.S. increased by 26.5 percent between 1999 and 2015.

"There is a critical window in which depressed patients who are suicidal need rapid relief to prevent self-harm," said Michael Grunebaum, MD, a research psychiatrist at CUMC, who led the study. "Currently available antidepressants can be effective in reducing suicidal thoughts in patients with depression, but they can take weeks to have an effect. Suicidal, depressed patients need treatments that are rapidly effective in reducing suicidal thoughts when they are at highest risk. Currently, there is no such treatment for rapid relief of suicidal thoughts in depressed patients."

Most antidepressant trials have excluded patients with suicidal thoughts and behavior, limiting data on the effectiveness of antidepressants in this population. However, previous studies have shown that low doses of ketamine, an anesthetic drug, causes a rapid reduction in depression symptoms and may be accompanied by a decrease in suicidal thoughts.

The 80 depressed adults with clinically significant suicidal thoughts who enrolled in this study were randomly assigned to receive an infusion of low-dose ketamine or midazolam, a sedative. Within 24 hours, the ketamine group had a clinically significant reduction in suicidal thoughts that was greater than with the midazolam group. The improvement in suicidal thoughts and depression in the ketamine group appeared to persist for up to six weeks.

Those in the ketamine group also had greater improvement in overall mood, depression, and fatigue compared with the midazolam group. Ketamine's effect on depression accounted for approximately one-third of its effect on suicidal thoughts, suggesting the treatment has a specific anti-suicidal effect.

Side effects, mainly dissociation (feeling spacey) and an increase in blood pressure during the infusion, were mild to moderate and typically resolved within minutes to hours after receiving ketamine.

"This study shows that ketamine offers promise as a rapidly acting treatment for reducing suicidal thoughts in patients with depression," said Dr. Grunebaum. "Additional research to evaluate ketamine's antidepressant and anti-suicidal effects may pave the way for the development of new antidepressant medications that are faster acting and have the potential to help individuals who do not respond to currently available treatments."

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The study is titled, "Ketamine for Rapid Reduction of Suicidal Thoughts in Major Depression: A Midazolam-Controlled Randomized Clinical Trial."

This study was supported by the National Institutes of Health (R01 MH096784).

The other contributors from CUMC are Hanga C. Galfalvy, Tse-Hwei Choo, John G. Keilp, Vivk K. Moitra, Michelle S. Parris, Julia E. Marver, Aisnley K. Burke, Matthew S. Milak, M. Elizabeth Sublette, and J. John Mann. Maria A. Oquendo (Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA) also contributed.

Dr. Galfalvy's family owns stock in Illumina, Inc. Dr. Oquendo's family owns stock in Bristol-Myers Squibb. Drs. Burke, Oquendo, and Mann receive royalties for commercial use of the Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale. The other authors report no financial or other conflicts of interest.

Columbia University Department of Psychiatry

Columbia Psychiatry is among the top ranked psychiatry departments in the nation and has contributed greatly to the understanding and treatment of brain disorders. Co-located at the New York State Psychiatric Institute on the NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center campus in Washington Heights, the department enjoys a rich and productive collaborative relationship with physicians in various disciplines at Columbia University's College of Physician's and Surgeons. Columbia Psychiatry is home to distinguished clinicians and researchers noted for their clinical and research advances in the diagnosis and treatment of depression, suicide, schizophrenia, bipolar and anxiety disorders, eating disorders, substance use disorders, and childhood psychiatric disorders.

Columbia University Medical Center provides international leadership in basic, preclinical, and clinical research; medical and health sciences education; and patient care. The medical center trains future leaders and includes the dedicated work of many physicians, scientists, public health professionals, dentists, and nurses at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Mailman School of Public Health, the College of Dental Medicine, the School of Nursing, the biomedical departments of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and allied research centers and institutions. Columbia University Medical Center is home to the largest medical research enterprise in New York City and State and one of the largest faculty medical practices in the Northeast. The campus that Columbia University Medical Center shares with its hospital partner, NewYork-Presbyterian, is now called the Columbia University Irving Medical Center. For more information, visit cumc.columbia.edu or columbiadoctors.org.

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